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Panel OKs bill expanding minors’ access to mental health services without parental consent

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Panel OKs bill expanding minors’ access to mental health services without parental consent

Feb 23, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Panel OKs bill expanding minors’ access to mental health services without parental consent
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The bill would do "none of those awful things that were suggested" by some witnesses, bill sponsor Sen. Joe Vitale said Thursday. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

A Senate panel approved legislation Thursday that would lower the age of consent for minors to seek outpatient mental and behavioral health care from 16 to 14 after hours of testimony, much of which had nothing to do with the bill at all.

The Senate Health Committee approved the measure in a 5-1 vote with Sen. Bob Singer (R-Ocean) abstaining. Sen. Owen Henry (R-Middlesex) was the only member to vote against the bill, which changes a single word in state law.

“The only change that we’re making to the existing law is lowering the age of access from 16-years-old to 14-years-old. Everything else in current law continues to exist without any change at all,” said Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), a reminder many witnesses proceeded to ignore.

The bill is an effort to increase the availability of mental health services for young people, a demographic whose suicidality rose to its highest level in nearly 30 years in 2021. But it drew considerable opposition from critics who charged the state is seeking to cut them out of parenting.

The legislation’s supporters said it is needed both to address rising despair among youth and to provide an avenue for care to students whose parents are abusive or disinterested.

“These parents I had, they never really paid attention to me. They were always on cloud nine and drugs,” said Trinity Campbell, a high school senior. “You can have abusive parents. I remember the one time my father said, ‘You tell anybody, I’m punching you in the face.’ Who wants that? It scares a child, it really does.”

Campbell said she got aid through the Hudson County branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, but her parents attempted to stop her from seeking counseling through the nonprofit youth organization, she said.

Much of Thursday’s testimony centered around parental notification.

The bill’s opponents noted parental involvement helps prevent suicides. Research has shown teenage children of uninvolved parents are more likely to attempt suicide than those born into families with attentive parents.

“To have a successful outcome of treatment, more parental involvement is necessary, not less,” said Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy for the New Jersey Family Policy Center, a religious group.

Supporters didn’t dispute that, but they noted that isn’t the case for every child.

“I know that everyone wants to believe in good faith that every child lives in a supportive and safe home environment, but we know for sure that is not true,” said Lauren Albrecht, director of advocacy and organizing for LGBT rights group Garden State Equality. “I know that every family wants to believe that they are offering the kind of home in which their teen can speak privately to them about mental health, but we know that is not true.”

Others, including Ed Durr, a Republican and former state senator, compared mental health care to gun ownership and drug consumption, asking why legislators are not seeking to lower age limits for firearms, drinking, and cigarette smoking.

“Anyone under the age of 18 cannot do or take part in, legally, in the state of New Jersey, vote in elections, purchase or consume alcohol, purchase or possess tobacco products … It doesn’t get any simpler than this: The parents or guardians should always be involved in all decisions made about their children and their welfare,” Durr said.

Numerous witnesses appeared to have only the barest grasp of what the bill would actually change. Several falsely claimed it would allow health care professionals to dispense or administer medication to minors without parental consent. It does not.

Others took issue with portions of existing law that the bill does not change at all, like a provision that allows physicians to withhold parental notification for a minor who has been sexually assaulted if such notification would not be in the child’s best interest — if they were assaulted by a parent, say.

Yet others inexplicably claimed the bill would somehow eliminate the Division of Child Protection and Permanency. And some peddled in conspiracy, charging without evidence the bill would lead to social workers sex trafficking children.

“If you boil it down to what the facts are and what it actually does, it’s none of those awful things that were suggested,” Vitale said. “It’s more of just an age issue. It wasn’t about pedophilia and transgenderism and other loony catchphrases that I just can’t tolerate. It’s not fair, and it’s ugly, ugly talk.”